How did England go from such a dominant performance against the reigning and dethroned world champions, to coming so brutally unstuck against the new anointed kings of the globe?
Eddie Jones didn’t have the answer following England’s humbling 32-12 defeat against South Africa, a scoreline that while it flattered the Springboks due to two late tries, actually reflected the dominance that they enjoyed in a one-sided forward battle.
One key ingredient must be recognised first though: South Africa were sublime. Their power game was there for all to see, but the final quarter
England got nowhere near the level that they reached against New Zealand in the semi-finals, and perhaps that was the ultimate problem: that their World Cup final came one week too early? Or perhaps it was the loss of Kyle Sinckler, knocked out of the game in an accidental yet sickening collision with teammate Mare Itoje in just the third minute that left Dan Cole facing 77 minutes against an unstoppable Tendai Mtawarira and then a fresh Steven Kitschoff. It could have been that all the talk of England being heavy favourites, South Africa playing ‘anti-rugby’ and talk of a bus parade through the streets of London on Tuesday gave Rassie Erasmus and his side all the fuel needed to light the internal fire.
But while the root of the issue will never be known, it took seconds to work out that something just wasn’t right. England were delayed in arriving at the International Stadium Yokohama for the second week running, though this time it was traffic to blame after last week’s weather problems. Jones dismissed the idea that this affected them, but with half an hour to go until kick-off, England had yet to fully start their warm-up as players stretched among themselves.
Within a minute, England had conceded a penalty through Courtney Lawes not rolling away fast enough, and the only surprise came in Handre Pollard failing to find the target.
The loss of Sinckler though felt much, much bigger than the England players let on, and for a perfectly understandable reason: to have been affected by seeing a teammate lying fully unconscious, medics surrounding him and a cart brought onto the field would have been to show a mental weakness. But we are all human – this England team is all human despite their super-human performances up until now – and there had to be at least an announce of compassion within them.
“He has had a great World Cup,” hailed opposite man Tendai Mtawarira, who had not even had the chance to scrum against the tighthead before he was forced off. “For him to come off so early in the game was unfortunate, and I think, as rugby players, we never enjoy seeing someone come off with a bad injury. So obviously they lost somebody up front who has been performing really well. But you know, Dan Cole is also a quality tighthead. He has a lot of Test caps behind him. Yeah, so I don’t think it really made a difference.”
Whether it made a difference or not, the relief came in Sinckler returning to his feet and making his own way off the field, distraught and beyond consoling, but more importantly in one piece.
“Words can’t do justice to how I’m feeling right now,” Sinckler posted in Twitter. “Biggest moment in my life and not even being able to get a chance to shoot my shot. Sport is cruel but we can never let adversity get the better of us. Want to thank everyone for their support especially back home.”
But the scrum. It always came back to the scrum. Six times England found themselves on the wrong side of referee in the scrum, three of which Pollard converted into points that was nearly enough to match England’s total haul alone.
How did England struggle in an area that has not only been one of great strength for them in this four-year cycle, but a hallmark of the English game since the dawn of the sport?
"That first scrum allowed us to keep applying the pressure. We said after that let's keep looking for more scrums,” revealed the Springbok forwards coach Matthew Proudfoot. "I must say Beast [Mtawarira], a man who has 119 caps, stays hungry as anything. On Monday he said, 'what can I work on in my game'?
"I said, 'let's just worry about the final'. He's been really exceptional and wanting to end his career on a high note. I thought he was great tonight."
Without a scrum to build off, any team will struggle to go forward, let alone against a defiant Springboks defence on the grand stage of a World Cup final. For the men in the heat of the battle, the mounting problems were clear to see. They just didn’t know how to solve them.
“It was difficult,” said Mako Vunipola. “We were aware of the threat but posed at the scrum, but hats off to them, they took advantage. We're disappointed but it happens sometimes and we'll look at it again tomorrow.
“It was because of a bit of weight, a bit of technique. There were things we could have done differently. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, but now disappointment is the biggest feeling. There were little subtle things they did differently, but it was nothing major. We probably sat back a little bit, but I can't put my finger on why.”
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